Gareth Baines is a senior executive at an international company. He served Clwyd South as agent in both 2015 and 2017, and as campaign manager in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
It took us so long to get here, but here we are. A party that assumed anything but a landslide was impossible.
It was writ high on the walls: Theresa May’s Party (we used to be called the Conservative and Unionist Party, if you can remember) were on course for a landslide that would make Thatcher and Blair blush.
The cards were all stacked in our favour: a 20 point lead, a leader who had an unassailably high approval rating, and a shambolic opposition lead by a man in whom 172 of his own MPs had no confidence, a Shadow Home Secretary who can’t count, and a Shadow Chancellor who can’t be trusted.
The talk was of CCHQ viewing any seat with a Labour majority of around 8,000 as a target – such optimism within the party I can never remember. Local election results saw the Conservatives gain 563 new Councillors (I stood as agent for Bev Parry-Jones in Bryn Cefn who secured a 37 per cent swing from Labour to be elected), and control of 11 Councils – netting a positive swing of 8 per cent.
It all seemed to be coming true. Then polling day came, and er… we know how that went. We didn’t get a repeat of 1983 with a landslide to rival Thatcher’s, we lost our majority. What went so catastrophically wrong?
I started as agent and campaign manager in Clwyd South – and our ground campaign was enthusiastic and upbeat, with morale amongst the campaign team high. For the first time Clwyd South was viewed as a target seat, given the result in 2015 meant we were one of the most marginal seats in Wales, and it was a straight two horse race between Labour and the Conservatives.
We had a record number of poster sites, and our doorstep canvass returns were showing three things: UKIP voters switching en mass to the Conservatives; Labour voters saying they’d vote Conservative because of Corbyn; and others saying they’d simply not vote, again because of Corbyn. We were practically salivating.
UKIP’s vote in Clwyd South would have been enough for us to wipe out Labour’s majority, and turn the seat to a Conservative majority of around 2,000 – before factoring in Labour swing voters, and a suppression of Labour votes. In all my years campaigning, I have never seen such a record haul of Conservative pledges on the doorstep – more surprisingly so given our ground campaign focused on what were traditionally viewed as Labour areas within the constituency.
Then the national campaign kicked in. The Conservative Party name was all but dropped. We became the Theresa May Party. My candidate became Theresa May’s personal chattel, all literature from CCHQ referred to “Theresa May’s candidate” – any local connection was lost. I doubted my judgement, our canvass returns were still unbelievably positive, so cast my negative thoughts aside. The tide was on our side.
Then came the manifesto, and the tide turned. There was real anger at the “dementia tax”, a policy which in my view suffered more from poor marketing than being a bad idea. The Prime Minister came to visit us in Wales and performed a screeching, screaming u-turn – right in the middle of the a general election campaign.
I’ve never witnessed anything like it. I was in that audience when Theresa May performed a u-turn, and denied point blank that it was a u-turn. Her own audience (Conservative Party members!) disagreed, an elderly couple behind me kept saying – audibly – “yes you are” every time May said she absolutely definitely was not performing a u-turn (even though she was).
As such, the manifesto descended into near farce. This was palpable on the doorstep, people didn’t like it – they really didn’t like it. We felt the tide turning away from us from that moment.
But we had a few weeks. We were still getting lots of pledges, we could salvage this given we had an excellent candidate and a strong team on the ground. Then we heard about the fox hunting, and we thought we heard wrong, but we hadn’t – May really had gone there. Why on earth would anyone want to pick that old scab again? The issue had just about been forgotten about – now here it was, centre stage.
Again, people didn’t like it – they really didn’t like it. From Conservative voters to Labour voters, they didn’t like it. They were angry, and my candidate received a deluge of e-mails regarding fox hunting.
Then we started to see Labour’s literature – or more importantly, I should stress – Welsh Labour’s literature. All of their national literature had an unrelenting focus on Wales itself, and what Welsh Labour had to offer Wales.
I sat in the kitchen one evening, after a full day of door knocking, and laid down side by side our national literature and Welsh Labour’s. Ours barely mentioned Wales – we don’t have a Welsh Theresa May Party, and I’m reliably informed Theresa May isn’t Welsh. We’d been outplayed, we barely had mention of Wales at all.
I must admit, this in part will be because of Corbyn – the Labour candidate in our constituency called him “unelectable” and called for him to resign, as such Carwyn Jones featured on national literature, Corbyn wasn’t featured at all on national or local literature in either photographic form or in print.
Instead, we had Brexit and Theresa May, the national campaign had effectively treated Wales as an add-on to England. The Scottish Conservatives had a clear message for Scotland – whereas we didn’t have one for Wales.
However, we still were getting huge canvass returns (I’m told our constituency has the largest pledge base in North Wales) – so we remained positive. We assumed, wrongly, the polls must be wrong – same was they were in 2015, and the same as they were for the EU referendum.
We were wrong. CCHQ, or May, had completely missed the ball. In the count hall what we had thought came true: our share went up by the same amount UKIP’s declined. However, Labour’s also went up. This fits into the national picture, our vote share went up, but not enough to win.
There has been a huge amount of gloom after the result – understandably, however, I’m at pains to point out a few things: Conservatives were just 500,000 votes short of reaching Major’s record 14.1million votes, we secured 2,316,324 votes more than in 2015, and a swing of just 0.5 per cent would now deliver a majority Conservative government.
CCHQ should now be in listening mode, and if they are, I’d like to sign off by saying: we won a majority in 2015 by adopting a strategy with a strong, methodical message on the economy and a negative message on the opposition (we succeeded in the negativity, whether it backfired or not is a call for others to make, but the economy was barely mentioned), but it was underpinned, crucially, by a positive message of ambition and opportunity – and policies on taxation that could be sold on the doorstep.
What we needed in 2017 was a modified version of this winning strategy to defeat Corbynite socialism, just as it defeated the more moderate Milibandism. In the end, the manifesto was cooked up when our poll lead was too high, and May’s approval ratings too high. As such we took voters for granted, we’re now paying the price.